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Posts Tagged ‘Experimental Cinema’

Roberty Downey Sr.’s Pound (1970)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Robert Downey Sr. (center) with cast members on the set of his film Pound.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr., whose best known film after all these years is Putney Swope. I first met Bob back in 1969, right after the success of Putney, when he was editing Pound in a cutting room in the West 50s in Manhattan. We hit it off, and remain friends to this day, but although I’ve written about a lot of his other work, I’ve never really tacked Pound, which is simultaneously one of his most disturbing and ambitious films, and was – at least in my mind – a highly unlikely follow-up to Putney Swope. But at this point in his career, Bob could write his own ticket, and the result is one of the darkest, most unsettling visions of humanity in crisis that ever hit the screen – yet to this day, Pound is almost impossible to see.

As Rich Drees noted in a 2006 article on Pound, the plot of the film is simple: “set in a New York City dog pound, 18 dogs, played by human actors, wait to be adopted. Part existential comedy, part allegory, the dogs include a punch drunk Boxer (Stan Gottlieb), a hyperactive Mexican Hairless (a scene stealing Lawrence Wolf) and a sleek Greyhound (Antonio Fargas). Meanwhile, the city is being terrorized by a serial killer dubbed The Honky Killer (James Green). Pound also features the debut of performance of Downey’s son Robert Jr. as a puppy temporarily held at the pound.”

But that’s just the set-up. Hovering over all the characters is the continual threat of death from “the needle” – they’re not so much waiting to be adopted, as waiting to be executed. A terrier advises that they should revolt against their captors and escape, while an airedale argues that their deaths are not imminent, and a pardon is forthcoming. Throughout the film, there a number of mournful musical numbers which verge on nihilistic vaudeville, interspersed with a series of philosophical diatribes on the nature of existence, the transience of life, and the ways in which we’re all in a prison of one sort or another, whether we wish to admit it or not.

The end of the film is terrifying, as all of their ranting against the caprices of fate comes to naught. Without warning, a guard peremptorily pulls a switch that sends poisonous gas into the holding chamber, and one by one, the animals die an agonizing death, with each “dog” given a last, wistful closeup as they expire. Downey then cuts to a final sequence on a train to nowhere, as the “dogs” sit in their seats, bound for who knows where – heaven? hell? limbo? – and a candy barker walks through the aisle with a megaphone singing the 1930s song “Just One More Chance,” the lyrics of which, in part, lament that “we spend our lives in groping for happiness / I found it once and tossed it aside / I paid for it with hours of loneliness / I’ve nothing to hide.” And on this unresolved note, the film ends.

Not surprisingly, Pound was summarily rejected by the sponsoring studio, MGM, who for some reason, Downey told me, thought that the film would be an animated cartoon. When they saw the finished result, MGM dumped it on the bottom half of a double bill with Federico Fellini’s Satryicon, to Downey’s delight. Yet not surprisingly, given the film’s incredibly bleak outlook on life, Pound has never had a VHS or DVD release, although it was available as a streaming download on Netflix for a time, but has now been withdrawn.

Indeed, as Drees notes, it’s a miracle that the film exists at all, since “the only print of the film that Downey could locate was found in his ‘cameraman’s ex-wife’s closet . . . a 35mm print that was dead.’ Although the print itself was deemed unprojectable, it was able to be digitally scanned and restored. ‘So they put the color back in,’ says Downey. ‘They cleaned up the sound a bit too. Technology is great, it’s just the movies aren’t getting any better. It’s only because of digital technology that some of this stuff can be saved, because most of the colors just go. Most of my stuff in color other than Greasers Palace (1972), I hate the color. I love black and white.’”

Based on a play Downey wrote very early in his career, The Comeuppance, which was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1961, Pound betrays its theatrical origins, and has strong links to Sartre’s play No Exit, as well as to Downey’s even earlier efforts, such as his first play about two nuclear missiles in a silo, waiting go off, talking to each other about the destruction they will inevitably inflict on humankind. Pound can certainly be seen as an extension of that, and it’s no wonder that it was so roundly rejected by the general public, and got an NC-17 rating – it’s a real warning that the only one you can really trust in life is yourself.

There are bootlegs of the film, of course, drifting around on the web, and today, the film’s major curiosity draw seems to be the brief appearance of Bob Downey Jr. in a small role as a puppy – but the film is much more than that. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, and Downey himself has expressed definite reservations about Pound, but all in all, it’s one hell of a scary vision of life, and a real outlier in film history – the work of someone chasing not success, but his own vision, consequences be damned. As Downey said of his work as a filmmaker, “after being thrown out of the house, four schools and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track.”

“I just think he’s one of our great American directors” — Paul Thomas Anderson

The Films of Jim Krell at Anthology – At Last!

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

A sold out audience for the films of Jim Krell at Anthology Film Archives – 4/17/2015.

At last, in their first projection since a screening at the Rutgers University in 1982, six of Jim Krell’s films were shown to a large, receptive, and deeply enthusiastic audience at Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archive on April 17, 2015. Krell’s films are such utterly original works that the chance to see them should simply not be overlooked, not least because they were created in 16mm, and were screened in that format, something that is increasingly rare in the 21st century.

I curated the screening, in addition to presenting an introductory lecture offering an overview of Krell’s work, as someone who witnessed the creation of many of the films included in the program. Sadly, the prints of some of Krell’s earliest films, such as Paper Palsy and Shoreline of China, seem to have been lost in the thirty or so years since their last projection.

The originals for these early films, however, are happily all in Anthology’s collection of Krell’s materials; perhaps, someday, they will be printed up again. Nevertheless, what we saw was astounding, and demonstrates conclusively that a major retrospective of Krell’s work is long, long overdue.

One of the most original and iconoclastic figures of the New American Cinema, Jim Krell created work that is simultaneously so important, and yet so unknown, that this screening constitutes a major event, closing a significant gap in experimental film history. Starting in the early 1970s, Krell created a series of mysterious and rigorous films that defy written description, visionary works that conjure up an entirely different vision of the physical universe.

During that time, I had the opportunity to watch him at work on several occasions. What always impressed me (or perhaps ‘astonished’ is a better word) concerning Krell’s shooting methods was the intrinsic speed and seemingly random technique he brought to his work, creating films with offhand precision that both challenged and engaged the viewer.

Now living in Italy, Krell has long since moved on to other pursuits, but during the white hot period in which he turned out one amazing film after another in a veritable torrent of work, Krell created a singular vision that is all the more impressive because each of his films is entirely different from any other of his works; he never does the same thing twice. So the chance to see, and save, his work, is something that isn’t to be taken lightly.

Thanks to all at Anthology, including Jed Rapfogel, Andrew Lampert, Sarah Halpern, and the superb projectionists who really brought Jim’s films to life on this memorable night; I really do hope this will be the first of many more screenings of his work. You can read more about Krell’s work in my book The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema.

Jim Krell is a genuine American original, in every sense of the word.

New Filmmakers, New Works – The Film Makers’ Cooperative

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Looking for something new in the way of filmic visions?

The Film Makers’ Cooperative has been around since the early 1960s, when it was founded by Jonas Mekas and a host of other filmmakers; I myself was a member of the Coop for many years. It remains perhaps the most egalitarian distribution company in the United States, which is in itself a remarkable achievement. The Coop is open to all; anyone can submit a film, there are regular screenings throughout the year, and here’s one such example above. Of course, you have to be in Manhattan to take advantage of this, but The Coop stands alone as a beacon for independent film -willing to take any risk to bring more cutting edge works before the public. So if you’re in New York City at the end of the month, why not check out this screening, and see what some new people in the field are up to? I’m so tired of writing about the hegemony of the mainstream cinema; here’s your chance to supportive an alternative series of visions, and young filmmakers, and at a cost of just $10 – what you would pay for an ordinary film.

The Film Makers’ Cooperative is keeping the spirit of truly independent cinema alive.

“A Lioness on the Prowl”: Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

I have an article out today on Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under The Skin in Film International.

As I write, in part, “Under The Skin is being sold on the basis of a simple premise, which is true on the face of it, but also offers just the merest suggestion of what the film is in its totality. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien inhabiting a woman’s body, who trolls through the Scottish countryside and cities searching for young men, enticing them with the promise of a sexual encounter, and then killing them for food.

In this, she is monitored by another alien, who takes on the form of a sinister motorcyclist (played by real life champion cyclist Jeremy McWilliams), who is there to make sure that Johansson’s character stays on track with her mission. That’s pretty much the plot, or as much of it as I want to give away, but there’s a great deal more going on here than this bare outline would suggest.

Firstly, there’s no real sex in the film, just the promise of sex. Although Johansson lures several men into her white van during the first third of the film, and then takes them back to her flat, ostensibly for sex, nothing really happens; the men strip off and approach Johansson, who backs away from them, as the men sink into some sort of primordial ooze that swallows them up, and then reduces them to fleshy pulp for otherworldly consumption. Indeed, there is more frontal male nudity here than female, and it’s clear that one of the many things that the film is interested in is the fetishization of sex; Johansson’s simulacric image has been created as nothing more than a stock male fantasy.

We get only one glimpse of the actual harvesting process, in which two men, both victims, are now in a sort of limbo, and desperately attempt to touch each other to make some sort of contact, and perhaps escape the trap they’ve fallen into. But no such luck; in an instant, one of the men is reduced to nothing more than a human husk, and the pulp of his body is sucked through a chute into a door of some kind, food for Johansson’s cohorts in a distant galaxy.

Although there are a number of scenes in the film in which Johansson is nude, they’re sequences in which, as an alien, she examines her new body, and wonders at its construction, and why it’s so alluring to her victims. In the opening third of the film, she is utterly without humanity, clubbing one man to death on a beach and leaving an infant baby to be swept out into the tide without even the slightest shred of remorse. But then again, she’s not human – she doesn’t understand the meaning of the word.”

This is a remarkable film, but you’ll have to seek it out; see it as soon as you can.

Gutai Art Exhibition at The Guggenheim Museum

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

I recently saw a stunning show of Gutai Art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

As Ming Tiampo, Associate Professor, Art History, Carleton University, Ottawa, and Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York wrote of the exhibition, “Gutai: Splendid Playground presents the creative spectrum of Japan’s most influential avant-garde collective of the postwar era. Founded by the visionary artist Yoshihara Jirō in 1954, the Gutai group was legendary in its own time. Its young members explored new art forms combining performance, painting, and interactive environments, and realized an ‘international common ground’ of experimental art through the worldwide reach of their exhibition and publication activities. Against the backdrop of wartime totalitarianism, Gutai forged an ethics of creative freedom, breaking through myriad boundaries to create some of the most exuberant works and events in the history of Japanese and international avant-garde art. Yoshihara’s Please Draw Freely (1956/2013), a collective drawing on a freestanding signboard reconceived for the Guggenheim’s rotunda and created by visitors, invites adults and children to collaborate, think, and imagine for themselves.

The Gutai Art Association (active 1954–72) originated in the cosmopolitan town of Ashiya, near Osaka, in western Japan. Spanning two generations, the group totaled 59 Japanese artists over its 18-year history. The name Gutai literally means ‘concreteness’ and captures the direct engagement with materials its members were experimenting with around the time of its founding in 1954. From its earliest festival-like events, Gutai artists sought to break down the barriers between art, the ordinary public, and everyday life, and continuously took on new artistic challenges using the body in direct action with materials, time and space, and nature and technology. Charting Gutai’s creation of visual, conceptual, and theoretical terrains, this exhibition is organized throughout the museum in chronological and thematic sections: Play, Network, Concept, the Concrete, Performance Painting, and Environment Art.

The outdoor exhibitions of 1955 and 1956 literally set the stage for the group’s artistic strategies. Held in a pine grove park in Ashiya, these events brought art outside and released it from its confines, like Motonaga Sadamasa’s magisterial Work (Water). The Guggenheim commissioned the artist to recreate this work for the rotunda, where he hangs common, polyethylene tubes of varying widths filled with brightly-colored water between the rotunda levels, making giant brushstrokes out of catenaries in the open air that catch the sunlight (Work [Water], 1956/2011).

Moving from what Yoshihara decried as ‘fraudulent . . . appearances’ to lived reality, Gutai artists invented ways to go beyond contemporary styles of abstract painting into concrete pictures, blurring representational significance by incorporating raw matter, as well as time and space, as the stuff of art. Tanaka Atsuko’s Work (Bell) (1955/1993), reimagines painting as an acoustic composition of living sound through a sequential ringing of electric alarm bells wired along the entire expanse of Rotunda Level 2. Her interests in schematic and technical representation, wiring systems, lights, and the human form reached a pinnacle in her best-known work, Electric Dress (1956). The artist wore this spectacular costume made of flashing incandescent light bulbs painted in bright yellow, green, red, and blue for her performance during Gutai Art on the Stage (1957), whose documentary film is projected on Rotunda Level 5.

Like Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism, Gutai rejected psychic automatism for acts of corporeal materiality in the real world. Yoshihara’s involvement with the revitalization of Japanese traditional arts, specifically Japanese calligraphy, also informed his idea of art making as an unmediated experiential encounter between artist, gesture, and material. Shiraga Kazuo’s Untitled (1957), made by the artist painting on the floor with his bare feet, or Murakami Saburō’s Passage (1956), a performance painting made by the artist flinging himself through taut paper screens, both demonstrate Gutai’s call to release the ’scream of matter itself.’ In the context of live events, Gutai artists extended their objectives to theater, music, and film. The Gutai Card Box (1962) transformed the act of viewing paintings into an interaction, with the viewer purchasing a work from the artist hidden inside a vending machine.

As the global pioneers of environmental art, Gutai’s participatory environments take the form of organic or geometric abstract sculptures incorporating kinetic, light, and sound art, turning exhibition spaces into chaotic dens of screeching, pulsing, machine-like organisms. Yoshida Minoru’s erotic machine-sculpture Bisexual Flower (1969) mines the psychedelic effects of this approach. Gutai environments drew from contemporary architecture, technology, and urban design to promote a futuristic, space-age aesthetic. This can be seen in Nasaka Senkichirō’s giant armature composed of aluminum plumbing pipes punctured with holes, broadcasting a music composition as it zigzags its way up the exhibition space. This site of creativity is what Shiraga called ‘a splendid playground’ and what Yoshihara sought as a ‘free site that can contribute to the progress of humanity.’”

I was lucky enough to see the show — which ran from February 15–May 8, 2013 — on its last day of exhibition; I was unaware at the time that the show would soon be dismantled, but I was stunned by the originality, lack of commercialism, and genuine sense of wonder that the show displayed, which was also documented in numerous short films and videos projected throughout the museum. The Gutai movement was clearly very much ahead of the curve in terms of art in the United States, and in the happenings and performance pieces of the late 1950s and early 1960s done in the US, you can more than a little of Gutai’s influence.

However, due to the fact the international boundaries were more defined during the pre-web era than they are now, very little of Gutai’s output made it to the United States, except for those artists who visited Japan during the period when the group was active, and obviously took home notes. The other aspect of the Gutai movement that’s fascinating is that they knew when they had accomplished ewhat they wanted to do, and having worked continuously on creating boundary-breaking art since 1954, called a halt to the group’s activities in 1972, rather than just continuing on as a commercial entity. This is art at it’s purest, most genuine, and most affecting.

Click here, or on the image above, for a video on this exceptional show.

Taylor Mead 1924 – 2013

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Taylor Mead, center in the photograph above from the 1960s, and one of the authentic stars of the American underground film, has died at the age of 88.

As Elaine Woo wrote, in a sharply observed and deeply sympathetic obituary in The Los Angeles Times on May 11, 2013, “Taylor Mead, an underground cinema legend whose comic charm and sense of the surreal inspired Andy Warhol and other seminal figures in the alternative film world, died Wednesday in Denver. He was 88. A fixture of bohemian New York who was also a poet and artist, Mead was visiting family in Colorado when he had a stroke, said his niece, Priscilla Mead.

Called ‘the Charlie Chaplin of the 1960s underground,’ Mead was an elfin figure with kewpie-doll eyes who appeared, by his count, in 130 films, starting with the 1960 art house classic The Flower Thief. In a review for the Village Voice, film critic J. Hoberman pronounced him ‘the first underground movie star.’

He later became one of Warhol’s first superstars, appearing in films such as Tarzan and Jane Regained … Sort Of and Lonesome Cowboys. He also was known for his work in Ron Rice’s The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man and Robert Downey Sr.’s Babo 73. Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch, who cast Mead in a moving vignette that closed his 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes, considered Mead one of his heroes.

A dropout from a life of privilege, Mead allied himself with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other early leaders of the San Francisco Beat scene of the 1950s before settling in New York to eke out a living as a member of its thriving arts underground. He was a familiar face on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he wandered the streets with a notebook, read his poetry in coffeehouses – often against a background of a Charles Mingus recording – and fed feral cats in the predawn hours.

‘Taylor was a spark who inspired filmmakers, poets and artists on both coasts,’ said Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, which sponsored a Mead retrospective last fall. ‘He saw his life as his art and his art as his life and didn’t separate them the way we do today.’ He was the subject of Excavating Taylor Mead, a 2005 documentary by William Kirkley that knits the actor’s personal history with later struggles to hold on to his decrepit New York apartment and maintain his free-spirited life.

Born on the last day of 1924 in Grosse Pointe, Mich., Mead was the son of a wealthy businessman and his socialite wife who divorced before he was born. He floated through boarding schools and a number of colleges before his father found him a job in a brokerage house, which was not to his liking.

Openly gay since he was about 12, he left the East Coast in the mid-1950s, hitchhiked to California and studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. Inspired by Pull My Daisy, a short 1959 film based on the Kerouac play Beat Generation, he collaborated with Rice on The Flower Thief, a somewhat haphazardly structured film shot with a handheld camera that features Mead wandering through San Francisco coffeehouses and dives carrying a flower, an American flag and a teddy bear. ‘There was no plot, no planning,’ he told the Philadelphia City Paper in 2005. ‘It was … extremely spontaneous, and all of us were just crazy anyway.’ Village Voice critic J. Hoberman praised it as ‘the beatnik film par excellence,’ with Mead playing ‘a kind of Zen village idiot.’

In 1964, before Warhol was a pop-art mega-celebrity, he invited Mead on a road trip to California for the opening of a gallery show. They wound up making Tarzan and Jane Regained…Sort Of, a spoof of Hollywood adventure movies that was Warhol’s first partially scripted feature. It starred Mead as a Hollywood Tarzan cavorting with a naked Jane in a bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hotel, exercising on Venice Beach and having a bicep-flexing contest with Dennis Hopper as a rival Tarzan. Mead would appear in about 10 Warhol films over the next decade.

Calling himself ‘a drifter in the arts,’ Mead also acted on stage, winning an Obie Award in 1963 for his performance in the Frank O’Hara play The General Returns From One Place to Another. He published poetry and three volumes of his journals, displayed his art in the 2006 Whitney Biennial and read his poems weekly at Manhattan’s Bowery Poetry Club. ‘His whole campaign was, stay creative, active, busy. And he did,’ said filmmaker and friend Clayton Patterson.

He made his biggest splash in decades in 2003 in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, a loosely connected series of vignettes with a wide-ranging cast including Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. Critics were moved by Mead’s performance as a janitor on a coffee break who doesn’t want to go back to work. The film ends with Mead closing his eyes to the strains of a favorite Mahler song, which resonated with his colorful past:

I am dead to the world’s tumult,

And I rest in a quiet realm!

I live alone in my heaven,

In my love and in my song!”

Taylor Mead, one of the authentic figures of the American avant-garde.

S.F. Trips Festival, An Opening – Ben Van Meter

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

People often ask me what experimental cinema was like in the 1960s; here is the answer.

Ben Van Meter’s S.F. Trips Festival — An Opening is one of my favorite films of all time, for a number of reasons, but the main reason I like the film so much is its’ economy of images; made for less than $100 to final print, van Meter shot the film over two nights — January 21-22, 1966 — on two and a half rolls of Ektachrome color reversal film, running each reel through the camera multiple times to create a labyrinth of images, effectively conveying the ecstasy and beauty of the scene in a very short space of time — roughly nine minutes. I’ve seen this film literally hundreds of times, and it never fails to impress me as an absolutely accurate document of a time and place now lost beyond authentic recall.

No money, just sheer inspiration and artistry, and a real commitment to embracing chance in the process of creating the film. Now, it’s here for everyone to enjoy; this used to be the model for experimental cinema until the Hollywood dominant model took over sometime in the early 1980s — the film school model — but even the most casual viewing of this film reveals the incomparable richness of Van Meter’s work. And all the editing was done in the camera; this is straight out of the Bolex, simply spliced together. Back then, nobody had the money for more raw stock than was absolutely necessary, but they made a virtue of penury, and they tried to jam as many images as possible into their films; the result is dazzling.

Absolutely stunning; click here, or on the image above, and see for yourself.

Maidstone, and The Films of Norman Mailer

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see Rip Torn and Norman Mailer battle it out in Mailer’s film Maidstonefor real.

Criterion continues to surprise and delight with their ongoing Eclipse series, which brings back to public view forgotten and often brilliant films from the classical era of cinema.

The latest Eclipse box set, Number 35, is entitled “Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer,” and features the title film, Maidstone, about Mailer’s fictional quest for the Presidency as the pompous Norman T. Kingsley, as well as his first improvised feature, Wild 90, which is of much less interest, and Beyond The Law, centering on one violent, boozy night in a fictional police precinct in Manhattan. All of these films were largely improvised; Wild 90 is completely made up on the spot, dialogue and all, and is fixed in one location, a dingy warehouse; Maidstone is set in a lush country estate, where Mailer gathered his friends and associates for five days of improv filming; and Beyond The Law follows the same format. The results, especially with Maidstone and Beyond the Law, are extraordinary.

As the Criterion notes for the set observe, “Norman Mailer is remembered for many things— his novels, his essays, his articles, his activism, his ego. One largely forgotten chapter of his life, however, is his late-sixties kamikaze-style plunge into making experimental films. These rough-hewn, self-financed, largely improvised metafictions are works of madness and bravado, all starring Mailer himself and with technical assistance from cinema verité trailblazers D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock. The most fully realized of his directorial efforts is the blustering, brawling Maidstone, a shocking sign of the political times, in which Mailer plays a filmmaker and presidential candidate who may be the target of an assassination attempt. Along with Mailer’s other films of the period—Wild 90 and Beyond the Law—it shows an uncompromising artist in thrall to both himself and a new medium.”

The actor Rip Torn was one of the principals in Maidstone, and in the film’s most notorious scene, convinced that the movie needed some more action, attacked Mailer with a hammer and bit off part of his ear in a very real, completely unstaged fight sequence. The film as a whole is a compelling exercise in self-psychoanalysis, but for me, Beyond The Law, shot in gritty black and white, with a cast that includes Rip Torn, George Plimpton, Mailer and a rogue’s gallery of hanger ons, is the gem of this group.

There will never be filmmaking like this again. Completely self-financed and shot in 16mm, these are films that Mailer made, at a great financial loss, simply because he felt had to express himself as a non-commercial, experimental filmmaker. Later in his career, Mailer directed a straight dramatic feature, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, based on one of his novels, but it’s a dull, commercial film, indifferently executed by a professional crew. Here, in these early, exhilarating, gloriously undisciplined and freewheeling films, he captures not only his own vision of the world he lived in, but also the essence of New York in the 1960s.

These are films not to be missed; it’s good to see them finally on DVD.

Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.

Monday, May 14th, 2012

At last! At last! At last!

Robert Downey Sr. has been a friend of mine since the late 1960s, and his films have been criminally neglected since then, and for years he’s been telling me about a box set of his movies coming out, and now, finally, it’s here from Criterion.

As Criterion’s notes point out, “rarely do landmark works of cinema seem so . . . wrong. Robert Downey Sr. emerged as one of the most irreverent filmmakers of the new American underground of the early sixties, taking no prisoners in his rough-and-tumble treatises on politics, race, and consumer culture. In his most famous, the midnight-movie mainstay Putney Swope, an advertising agency is turned on its head when a militant African American man takes charge. Like Swope, Downey held nothing sacred. This selection of five of his most raucous and outlandish films, dating from 1964 to 1975, offers a unique mix of the hilariously abrasive and the intensely experimental.

The set includes Babo 73 (1964), in which Warhol superstar Taylor Mead plays the president of the United Status, who conducts his top-secret international affairs on a deserted beach when he isn’t at the White House (a dilapidated Victorian), in Robert Downey Sr.’s political satire. Downey’s first feature is a rollicking, slapstick, ultra-low-budget 16 mm comedy experiment that introduced a twisted new voice to the American underground scene;

Chafed Elbows (1966), a breakthrough for Downey Sr., thanks to rave notices. Visualized largely in still 35 mm photographs, it follows a shiftless downtown Manhattanite having his “annual November breakdown,” wandering from one odd job to the next;

No More Excuses (1968), in which Downey takes his camera and microphone onto the streets for a close look at Manhattan’s swinging singles scene of the late sixties. Of course, that’s not all: No More Excuses cuts between this footage and the fragmented tale of a time-traveling Civil War soldier, a rant from the director of the fictional Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, and other assorted improprieties;

Putney Swope (1969), Downey’s most popular film, an oddball classic about the antics that ensue after Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, his voice dubbed by a gravelly Downey), the token black man on the board of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, is inadvertently elected chairman. Putney summarily fires everyone else, replaces them with Black Power apostles, renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc., and proceeds to wreak politically incorrect havoc; and finally;

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight
(1975), ‘a film without a beginning or an end,’ in Downey’s own words, this Dadaist thingamajig—a never-before-seen, newly reedited version of the director’s 1975 release Moment to Moment (also known as Jive)—is a cascade of curious sketches, scenes, and shots that takes on a rhythmic life. It stars Downey’s wife at the time, Elsie, in an endless succession of off-the-wall roles, from dancer to cocaine fiend.”

Downey Sr. is a one of a kind original, a brilliant satirist, and a take-no-prisoners filmmaker. Buy this set immediately; these films are essential documents of the 1960s, and some of the funniest films ever made, and I honestly never thought they’d see the light of day.

And now they’re out on Criterion, no less! Congratulations, Bob; long overdue!!

Inner and Outer Space

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see Edie Sedgwick in one of Andy Warhol’s most brilliant films, the two-screen, 33 minute Inner and Outer Space (1965), the only one Warhol’s films to incorporate the use of videotape, creating a hallucinatory monologue/duologue between Edie in front of Warhol’s Auricon 16mm film camera, and Edie onscreen, in a previously shot video.

I first saw the film when it came out in a rare screening at The Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, and many years later, at The Whitney Museum in a restored print in 1998, which confirmed my initial impression of the film — it’s absolutely original in conception, design and execution. Callie Angell, the late Warhol historian, wrote an excellent essay on the film in Millennium Film Journal 38 (Spring, 2002), in which she notes that “Outer and Inner Space is a 16mm film of Edie Sedgwick sitting in front of a television monitor on which is playing a prerecorded videotape of herself.  On the videotape, Edie is positioned on the left side of the frame, facing right; she is talking to an unseen person off-screen to our right. In the film, the ‘real’ or ‘live’ Edie Sedgwick is seated on the right side of the film frame, with her video image behind her, and she is talking to an unseen person off-screen to our left.

The effect of this setup is that it sometimes creates the rather strange illusion that we are watching Edie in conversation with her own video image. The film is two reels long, each reel is 1,200 feet or 33 minutes long, and the videotapes playing within the film are each 30 minutes long. The two film reels are projected side by side, with reel one on the left and reel two on the right, and with sound on both reels. So what you see are four heads, alternating video/film, video/film,  and sometimes all four heads are talking at once.

Warhol was able to make this film in August 1965 when he was loaned some rather expensive video equipment by the Norelco Company. The summer of 1965 was the time when portable, affordable video equipment designed for the home market first became available to the general public; a number of different companies, including Sony and Matsushida, were developing their own home video recording systems and beginning to market them at prices ranging from $500 to $1000 each.

The Norelco video equipment was a rather high-end system costing about $10,000, and it was loaned to Warhol as a kind of promotional gimmick.  That is, Warhol was quite well-known as an underground filmmaker at the time, as well as an artist, and the idea was that Warhol would experiment with the new video medium, see what he could do with it, and then report on his experiences in a published interview and more or less give his endorsement to the new medium and specifically to Norelco’s product.

The Norelco equipment was delivered to Warhol’s studio, the Factory, on July 30, 1965; in fact, the arrival of the video camera and the ensuing conversations about it between Warhol and his colleagues are some of the events documented in the early chapters of Warhol’s tape-recorded novel, A. During the month that Warhol had this video access, he shot approximately 11 half-hour tapes (at least, that’s how many Norelco videotapes have been found in the Warhol Video Collection).

One of the interesting things about Outer and Inner Space is that it contains, in effect, the only retrievable footage from these 1965 videotapes. The Norelco system utilized an unusual video format, called ’slant scan video,’ which differed from the helical scan format developed by Sony and other video companies, and which very quickly became obsolete. There are now no working slant scan tape players anywhere in the world, the other videotapes which Warhol shot in 1965 cannot be played back, and the only accessible footage from these early videos exists in this film, which Warhol, in effect, preserved by reshooting them in 16mm.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here; it’s a remarkable essay on a brilliant film.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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